Cohabiting a ‘Failed Social Experiment,’ Says Relationship Expert

Uncommitted sex leaving many women feeling short-changed, new book maintains
November 13, 2014 Updated: November 13, 2014

If the impassioned response is any indication, Debra Macleod has struck a nerve with women across the country with the release of her new book, which makes the case that women are the ones losing out in today’s dating world of casual sex and common-law living.

“It’s the type of thing that I tend to get equal volumes of hate-mail and love-mail, so you know you struck a chord,” says Macleod, an Alberta-based couples counsellor and relationship author-expert.

“The Modest Minx,” a secular dating guide for modern women unhappy in their romantic lives and looking for marriage, suggests that in some cases the sexual revolution has had the opposite effect than intended: Women are still performing many of the traditional roles in the home, without getting commitment and security in their relationships. Meanwhile, some men are taking advantage. 

“I see modern women, so many of them who are realizing that cohabitation and casual sex is what’s making them feel subordinate and desperate and losing their identity,” Macleod says.

“I think this bill of goods that we’ve been sold as women—that we should be having uncommitted sex, that we should be living together—it’s not working out for a lot of women.”

Macleod, who notes she isn’t religiously inclined, doesn’t dispute that many women are happy and fulfilled by cohabitation or casual sex. However, she says she couldn’t ignore the droves of women coming to her for help who were left disappointed and disillusioned by the mixed messages, indifference, or narcissistic behaviour of the non-committal men in their lives. 

On the flip side, she has yet to hear male clients complain of a lack of commitment from their partners.

“What I’m trying to do is get people to think about their life choice as women, and to see that these trends of casual sex, of cohabiting, these are pretty new in terms of dating norms. It has only been in the last 30 or 40 years that these have become commonplace, and I think it’s a failed social experiment, frankly.”

In a recent promotional event, Macleod invited women to do the “Modest Minx Challenge”—a call to follow her dating advice based on sexual restraint and self-empowerment for six months. In just two days she received hundreds of responses from women who wanted to sign up. 

Cohabitation on the Rise

Though Macleod admits her opinions may be counter-culture, statistics are on her side.

Research shows that marriage has many measurable benefits, both mental and physical, over cohabitation. Married couples stay together at much higher rates than cohabiting couples and are better off financially, which makes them better equipped to provide a stable environment for children (who statistically fare less well in cohabiting households). 

Married people also tend to be happier and report higher levels of well-being than their cohabiting counterparts. 

Meanwhile, however, cohabitation in Canada is on the rise. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of common-law couples rose 13.9 percent, more than four times the 3.1 percent increase for married couples. In 2011, common-law couples accounted for 16.7 percent of all census families while married couples remained the predominant family structure (67 percent).

One reason cohabiting relationships don’t seem to stand the test of time as well as marriage is that most couples she has observed are not in the right “head-space” for serious commitment, says Macleod.

“I noticed such a profound difference between couples who had legally married and who had made that commitment. Even if that marriage fell apart, they worked a lot harder to try and keep it together—they were in that commitment sort of head space,” says Macleod. 

“People who cohabit, especially boyfriend/girlfriend, they just don’t have that same level of commitment.”

Brad Pitt famously echoed this sentiment after marrying long-time partner Angelia Jolie earlier this year, reversing a previous decision to remain common-law. 

“I was surprised afterwards at the effect getting married has had on us—it was more than just a ceremony, it meant a real depth of commitment. I feel like a married man, I really do,” Pitt told Hello! magazine.

Redefining Marriage

Although marriage has been associated with female subordination and sexual repression in the wake of the women’s liberation movement, statistics show university-educated women who are at least 27 years of age and who do not have children from previous relationships are now fairing the best when it comes to marriage outcomes.

In a 2010 report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, college and university graduates (both male and female) reported the highest levels of marital happiness. From the 1970s to the 2000s, the number of highly educated people who believe that “divorce should be more difficult to obtain” also increased from 36 to 48 percent. 

In addition, high-profile unions such as that of George Clooney and human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin are bringing marriage back into vogue and framing it differently, says Macleod—showing that women who are smart, savvy, independent, and successful can still choose traditional marriage.

“We’re reclaiming and redefining what marriage is,” she says. 

“I don’t think it’s moral or immoral to be married or not, but I do think that certain lifestyle choices are more likely to make you happy and more likely to produce long-term relationships and stable family units.”